Monday, November 19, 2007

A dramatic new approach to the theatrical docudrama

by Misha Berson
Seattle Times theatre critic

NEW YORK CITY — Scottish military veterans recall the pride of their fabled regiment and their fateful, disillusioning service in Iraq.

New Yorkers reflect on the disappearance of valued objects and the loss of cherished loved ones.

These are shorthand descriptions of two unusual New York hit shows. One is "Black Watch," an exhilarating import from the National Theatre of Scotland, which just finished a run at St. Ann's Warehouse, a Brooklyn theater venue.

"Gone Missing" is a diverting original piece by the inventive young troupe The Civilians, now at Off Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre in an extended run through Jan. 6.

Though dissimilar in some respects, both pieces reflect a theatrical trend that's steadily gathered steam in recent decades: the rise of documentary drama.

However, neither relies solely on the usual "talking heads" format of so many docudramas, like the engrossing recent plays "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," a portrait of an idealistic young Olympia woman in her own words (seen at Seattle Rep earlier this year), and David Hare's "Stuff Happens," an account of the run-up to the current Iraq War (at ACT Theatre a few months ago).

The much-lauded, world-touring "Black Watch" and the more modestly ingratiating "Gone Missing" do use some standard docudrama ploys. They are thematic works, with dialogue largely drawn from interviews, statistics, news reports and other research documents. But that material is creatively enriched by bursts of abstract dance, live song interludes, even flying effects.

"Black Watch"

Lauded in Edinburgh (where it debuted), London, Los Angeles and New York, "Black Watch" is a bracing theatrical boot camp.

Speaking the actual words of men who served in the Black Watch — Scotland's most venerable and elite fighting force — a tireless all-male cast performs the show with drill-team precision.

Playwright Gregory Burke's script is critical of the Iraq War, and the American "bullying" that Black Watch fighters perceived when sent to supplement U.S. forces during a major 2004 assault on Fallujah.

But this isn't a protest play as much as "an unauthorized biography" of the Black Watch battalion. As such, it ruefully, imagistically explores military culture and how warfare has changed in the modern era.

During one exhilarating passage, a vet relates the storied history of the Black Watch, from its 18th-century origins to the present. While doing so, he's held aloft by comrades who swiftly dress and redress his body in the kilts, jackets and tam o'shanters of the different uniforms worn by this battalion through the centuries.

At another point, a crew of soldiers watches from its armored tank, while video footage of the intense U.S. bombing of Iraq's al-Anbar province thunders on eerily.

And when several Black Watch soldiers are blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device), they dangle from the rafters like awkward angels in camouflage.

Memorable also are the ironic songs: traditional Celtic marching tunes extolling bravery, sung heartily a cappella, or with bagpipe and drum.

"Black Watch" has its talking-head moments, when Scottish soldiers bicker in a profanity-laced brogue, spar with a nervous theatrical researcher and endure stretches of tense tedium in Iraq's suffocating heat.

But such startling sights as a recruit slashing his way out of the belly of a pool table with a knife convey nearly as much as the scripted words do.

The sensory bombardment is essential to portraying the brave new world of warfare, in which centuries-old rules of engagement are supplanted by fanatical terrorism, geopolitical "bullying" and the erosion of legendary forces like the Black Watch — which in 2006 lost its special status and was absorbed into the British Army.

"Gone Missing"

A far more modest exercise in docudrama, "Gone Missing" concerns itself with the disappearances of such nonessential objects as a single, high-heeled pump and a beloved stuffed sock toy.

Yet through bittersweet monologues; a minimal but evocative visual design; and smart, jazzy musical bits, this piece also touches deftly on major losses — e.g., loved ones who perished in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center disaster, and murder victims described with grisly humor by a jaded police detective.

The contrasts between the trivial and the profound can be jarring. However, the gray-suited actors, who with writer-director Steven Cosson conducted man-on-the-street interviews to concoct the show, keep "Gone Missing" popping and unpredictable.

And the lively dance routines and thoughtful songs (by Michael Friedman) help turn what might have been a snarky survey into something special: a mundane and metaphysical cabaret of bereavement.

Misha Berson: